Nursing Shortage Threatens Patient Care
The nursing shortage "is becoming so severe that it threatens patient care," the New York Times reports. Peter Buerhaus, associate dean at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, said, "The nursing shortage is one of the dominant issues in health care today. In some cases, the problem is so severe that hospitals have had to shut down nursing floors and cancel surgeries. This crisis has the potential to create a disaster scenario in terms of the quality of care." At 73 hospitals in New York, Long Island and Westchester, the nurse vacancy rate is averaging 8%, up "sharply" from 5.5% in 1999, according to the Greater New York Hospital Association. In California, the shortage is "even worse," at 20% for the state's 470 hospitals, according to the California Healthcare Association. More than two million registered nurses worked in the field last year, but 494,000 nurses are not using their licenses, up from 443,000 in 1996 and 387,000 in 1992, according to a February Bureau of Health Professions
report. Joseph Boshart, president of Cross Country Travcorps, one of the largest temporary nurse staffing companies, said there now are 100,000 openings for registered nurses. "We've burned out an entire generation of care givers," Jeff Goldsmith, president of Health Futures, a hospital consulting firm, said. Hospital officials and nurses say the shortage will worsen, as enrollment in nursing programs declines and the average age of nurses rises, the Times reports.
The shortage is partly the result of nurses' salaries, which, accounting for inflation, "have hardly changed" since 1992. Last year, the average salary for a full-time registered nurse was $46,782, according to the Bureau of Health Professions report. Some nurses say that "working conditions in hospitals are driving many of them out of the profession." Nurses in many hospitals must care for 10 or more medical and postsurgical patients at a time. Relie Dema-Ala, a nurse at Glendale, Calif.-based Glendale Memorial Hospital, said, "In the past year, the number of patients per nurse has increased and workloads have increased. The work is tremendously hard and stressful." As more nurses leave the job, the workload increases, forcing some nurses to work longer than a 12-hour shift. The situation has impacted patients, who "find it harder to get a nurse to respond promptly when they call for help," the Times reports.
To alleviate the situation, hospital administrators have begun offering nurses perks such as health club memberships and vacations, but their efforts have been "only moderately successful." For their part, nurses have begun joining unions in "growing numbers," calling for state and federal staffing rules, the Times reports. Of the 2.2 million nurses working today, 350,000 are union members, up from 300,000 in 1995, according to the Census Bureau. In addition, nurses are receiving "increasing attention" from lawmakers, the Times reports, noting that Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.) last month introduced legislation (HR 5179) that would ban mandatory overtime for nurses (Freudenheim/Villarosa, New York Times, 4/8).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.